IIC Newsletter 16: December 2001

IIC Newsletter: Number 16 – December 2001

Nobody need wait a single moment before beginning to improve the world

On September 11th, a young Muslim from Pakistan was evacuated from World Trade Centre where he worked. He saw a dark cloud coming towards him. Trying to escape, he fell. A Hasidic Jew held out his hand, saying, ‘Brother, there’s a cloud of glass coming at us, grab my hand, let’s get the hell out of here’. People of all faiths have held hands to support and comfort each other and to join together in prayer. Can we continue to hold hands as we shape a world society in which all people share to the full the precious gift of life? Those who were killed in America on September 11th and those who have been killed in Afghanistan will not have died in vain if their cries of anguish are also a wake up call to us to urgently to tackle our world’s problems.

The dangers of religious exclusivism and extremism, against which we in the interfaith movement struggle, are now clear for all to see. We should seize this moment to urge all people of faith to re-examine their teaching and practice to root out all that divides believers from each other.

We should emphasis the importance of spiritual and moral nurture in the home and in schools and colleges. Beyond our religious and interfaith circles we need to share, with politicians and economists and all who shape the future, our vision of a world society based on understanding and co-operation.
The responses to the tragic events of September 11th have defined ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ in the old language and actions of confrontation and enmity. But violence at best only suppresses aggression and breeds future conflict.

The experience of interfaith and peace groups active in areas of conflict is that bitter hatred can only be healed by listening. Slowly we begin to hear the other’s pain and grievance just as they may hear our sorrow.
By acceptance and forgiveness we can free ourselves from the chains that bind us to a bitter past.
The Dalai Lama said that two responses to the terrible events of September 11th were possible. One came from fear, the other from love. ‘If we could love even those who have attacked us, and seek to understand why they have done so … we would become spiritual activists.’ For this to happen, he says, we need Divine help and mutual support to grow in inner peace and wisdom. Each of us can contribute to healing the world.

As Anne Frank wrote in her diary at the age of fourteen, ‘How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before beginning to improve the world’.

Marcus Braybrooke

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At the end of the day Allah will not ask me what I achieved in life, or whether I changed the world. I will only be asked about whether I did what I could do. That’s the only question that will be asked of us. You were given so much time, so much money; these are the talents that I gave you. What did you do with them? Not whether you changed the world’s problems. Whether you brought about gender equality, interfaith understanding, harmony, solved the problems of the Balkans, Jews and Muslims. You won’t get asked any of these things. What did you do with what I gave you? That ‘s all that we are responsible for. And so we are accountable to God at the end of the day, and that’s it.

Quote from IIC’s video interview with Farid Esack, South African Muslim theologian, writer and social activist

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Islamic Responses to Terrorism

The suspicion that extremist “Islamists” were behind the incidents of September 11 and the current war devastating Afghanistan have mobilized Muslim communities and leaders worldwide. The Islamic Responses to Terrorism conference held at the al-Khoei Foundation in London was one such example of this heightened activity on the international scene. The 300 or so participants included Muslim leaders, experts on Islam, key decision-makers and members of the British media. HRH Prince Hassan of Jordan chaired the gathering and Prime Minister Tony Blair addressed the audience. I had the privilege of attending as a Trustee of the International Interfaith Centre, an opportunity for which I am extremely grateful.

The conference opened with a Muslim prayer and some comments by HRH Prince Hassan of Jordan. I will quote his comments at length because they set the tone for the day and came from the mouth of a Muslim figure who is well-respected in both the Muslim and Western worlds. The Prince noted that over a thousand Muslims perished in the World Trade Center, and one of the buildings contained a Muslim prayer room. He condemned all attacks against civilians and pointed out that the major Muslim leaders of the world had done so as well. At the same time, the Prince remarked that terrorism has root causes that must be addressed: “poverty hothouses terrorism” was one of his most memorable statements. He called this a watershed moment in history and said now was the time for our collective economic, moral and social will to shift towards “anthro-politics” – a politics where people matter.

The Prince claimed that the acceptance of pluralism was one of the pillars of this anthro-politics. He highlighted the pluralism within the Muslim world and pointed out that the Muslim religion preaches the acceptance of people’s differences. He also stated, “I am a creature of this pluralism that is my environment.” He pointed to the interfaith movement as an excellent example of people working together for peaceful pluralism and quoted Hans Kung’s famous statement that there will be no peace in the world without dialogue amongst the religions. The Prince proposed the creation of a Parliament of Cultures which would celebrate the world’s cultural diversity and be a resource for addressing disputes.

Prince Hassans’ combination of intellect and compassion, humor and worldly sophistication, are remarkable. He quoted freely from both the Qur’an and Isaiah Berlin, related equally well to speakers from the floor and the Prime Minister. Now more than ever, Muslims, and the world at large, need the leadership of giants like Prince Hassan.

The conference program included sessions on the Shari’a (Muslim law) perspective on terrorism, comments by British Muslim leaders on the current global situation, insights from academic experts on Islam and remarks by legal activists on the threat the current war poses to civil liberties. During the Shari’a session, two well-known British Muslim scholars quoted from the Qur’an and the Hadith (sayings of Prophet Muhammad), showing that Islamic tradition is absolutely against the murder of innocents. Over and over again they pointed out that Islam was a religion of both justice and compassion, and Muslims are called to be “a mercy to the world”.

The British Muslim leaders who spoke unanimously denounced the attacks in the United States and also the current war. Many also voiced the opinion that Western leaders viewed Muslim lives in Afghanistan and Pakistan as secondary to the lives of their citizens. I found most of their comments balanced and intelligent, but felt that some came dangerously close to supporting conspiracy theories.

The Prime Minister arrived right before lunch and opened his remarks with the traditional Muslim greeting, Asalam-alaikum. He said that he had much respect for Islam, that he appreciated that Muslim leaders had unanimously condemned the horrific acts of terror committed in the name of Islam and that he was very grateful for the important contributions Muslims make in Britain. The British Muslim leaders, even those who seemed angry at the West during the previous session, welcomed the Prime Minister with applause. I was personally impressed by his performance and felt that he lived up to his reputation as the senior statesman of the world.

Lunch was a delightful array of traditional foods from the Middle East and Persia. An Iraqi I chatted with was delighted to find some favorite foods from his homeland present. For Muslims, meals are as important as meetings. They are an opportunity to discuss serious issues, share a laugh, and perhaps most importantly, to show appreciation for the presence of guests. The conference participants were not disappointed.

The first afternoon session was a panel of experts on Islam. The panelists discussed the cynical way Western powers have dealt with the Muslim world over the past two centuries but also pointed out that the Muslim world needed to do some hard introspection and internal work to get its house in order. There seemed to be general agreement that the Islamic heritage provided abundant resources for the remaking of a vibrant Muslim civilization.

The final panel featured legal activists concerned with the dangerous erosion of civil liberties. Many of the fears they voiced in late October are unfortunately coming true at the time of this writing. One example of this is the UK government’s proposal to imprison people without important aspects of due process.

I found this conference extraordinarily interesting and important. It revealed the need for balanced, intelligent and compassionate leadership from within the Muslim fold, and was an opportunity for a diverse array of Muslims to show solidarity on important issues like opposition to the acts of violence against both the World Trade Center and Afghanistan.

Eboo Patel

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Globalisation and Religious Responsibility

The 2001 IIC Autumn lecture at Mansfield College Oxford

By coincidence, as a recent arrival in Oxford, I had visited the room where this interfaith gathering was held just a few weeks ago, during a Naming of Children ceremony, after which the young present were entertained by a conjuror. We could have done with his services as we wrestled to balance globalisation’s negative and positive contributions to the world’s economy and general well-being. Gwyneth Little, Trustee Chair of the International Interfaith Centre, welcomed us and handed the meeting over to a panel of three: David Ransom, one of New Internationalist’s Editors; Wendy Tyndale, from World Faiths Development Dialogue; and Jim Kenny, Director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions.

David Ransom, who held the ring for the evening, set us going with the dilemma he and his colleagues at Nl constantly face, between the demands made by international trade, all of which drive globalisation, and the needs of human-size trading too. A mixture of economic insecurity that pushed one global vision exclusively, and protectionist thinking designed to keep everyone at bay, were the twin evils which bugged good practice globalisation.

Wendy Tyndale took up the religious response challenge. To recognise the winners and losers in globalisation was our first responsibility. North American culture and values had affected all of Western secular culture; the losers were largely those outside the largesse from the rich club’s table. The faith communities had the responsibility to challenge two dangerous assumptions: firstly, that we have no alternative to the present world order; and, secondly, that we are living at the summit of human history with all the necessary economic tasks accomplished. Wendy then outlined three particular areas for the religious response to globalisation: *The contributions of the faith communities to the organisation of fair and just work in parts of the world where little of such existed (she instanced bonded workers in various economies). “Religious people can be found at the cutting edge, helping the poor to fight for their rights.” * The challenge of the poor. “To remain in ignorance is to act as accomplices in what is going on. …World Bank execs just don’t converse with peasants.” The world’s religions should be offering an altogether different viewpoint, which might help the power structures – like the WB – to meet real human needs rather than engage in abstruse dialogue. It was a case of either Fair Trade or continuing to let the thieves attack the travellers on the Jericho Road. * The bringing of hope. Spirituality is a way of life, whatever one’s convictions. The Buddhist tradition holds that everyone is inter-connected and that the search for truth, without dogmas and certainties, goes on. Religion should give the world hope.

Jim Kenney began by claiming that denying the existence of globalisation was akin to denying the arrival of dawn or twilight. Jim’s main thesis was that the challenge to the faith communities – given the unexpungable existence of the ‘global village’ – was to ensure that what he described as “the new conversation about fundamental values” took place from the bottom up rather than the top down. In the face of all the preoccupation with the corporate centres of power, and in the relatively recent collapse of moral absolutes, the “people of the earth” now need to engage with the “fundamental principles of peace, justice and sustainability” (how we decide whether this or that is ethical), at the same time as challenging the institutions to deliver accordingly. The Global Ethic is one such recent phenomenon (following the Human Rights Charter of 1948 and the “Call to our Guiding Institutions” of 1999 and the Earth Charter of 2000). Thomas Kuhn’s thesis on ‘paradigm shifts’ reminds us that we live at the cross-roads of “interesting times”. Jim stressed that the cross-road point was where the inter-religious movement had its operational base.

Quite a lively discussion period followed, started by one of the younger members present who very honestly confessed her doubts as to whether her own faith community could make any contribution to the engagement with globalisation. Although many must have shared the sense of powerlessness she was expressing, others -many of them mature in years – spoke positively about the religious responses in the global village. Several speakers stressed the need to listen to each other, another highlighted capitalism’s unreligious value system. “What the faith communities really need to press for is a framework of legitimacy”, urged someone else.

It was good to meet up with so many old – and not so old – friends. Left rather hanging in the air was the question about how we all communicate the brand new Global Vision to a disinterested and certainly very preoccupied world. Maybe, what we really needed was not so much a conjuror as an alchemist to help us hold together apparently opposing paradigms paradoxically both simple and infinitely complex.

A reflection by David Partridge

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Inter-Religious Dialogue Course

The International Interfaith Centre, together with the Oxford University Department for Continuing Education, organised a course this autumn on Inter-Religious Dialogue. The course started just after 11th September, which made the topic all the more acutely important for us all. The following changes in the world situation probably helped us keep our focus on the urgency of our subject. No longer was there a need to know why we should engage in inter-faith dialogue – only how.

The three tutors – Peggy Morgan, Norman Solomon and Ebrahim Patel – brought to the course their own individual and rich experiences of dialogue, which made the classes both varied and interesting. The tutors came from different faith backgrounds, and so did the students, which led to stimulating discussions. In fact, it was the opportunity to hear directly from persons of faith that was most appreciated by all.

Peggy Morgan, who led most of the classes, went through the history of interfaith, of different approaches and terminologies, and gave us a first hand experience of dialogue. She also guided us in a very gentle manner through the intricacies and subtleties of dialogue, thus preparing us for meeting members of other faiths with a considerate and respectful mindset.

We also learnt that there certainly are issues that need to be addressed in dialogue, demonstrated by Norman Solomon through the Jewish-Christian-Muslim dialogue. There may be historically rooted schisms and misunderstandings between members of different faiths that need discussing, while at the same time realising that all living faiths change and have to be taken for what they are in the present. His learned presentations opened up a lot of discussions, which also helped us to better understand the Jewish tradition and its history.

Ebrahim Patel made us think about different ways of dialogue in his energetic and creative lessons. We looked at several ways of conducting dialogue and how a dialogue could bring people together on a deeper emotional level through service and reflection on prayers. In one session we discussed our different ‘symbols’ or ways we connect with our spiritual path, something that led Joanna to some interesting realisations:

‘I found the 10-week course quite challenging on a personal level. I realised that engaging in interfaith dialogue is by no means a theoretical exercise, but a deeply practical and, in some ways, uncomfortable pursuit. Issues of faith are sensitive and touch many parts of our emotional and intellectual world-view. Prejudices you never thought you had bubble up to the surface and have to be exposed to the light – perhaps for the first time. By the end of the course I had no doubt that this pioneering work in developing ways of setting up peaceful and constructive dialogue will have an enormous impact on conflict resolution throughout the world.

Through all three of the tutors I gained a better insight into the issues and challenges facing inter-religious dialogue. But one particular section engendered a new realisation. Ebrahim Patel was covering the subject of ´Practical dialogue for daily life in plural societies` in the eighth week. He asked all the course delegates to choose a personal symbol of their particular faith tradition and to discuss this in pairs. Each delegate was then asked to describe his or her chosen symbol and explain what it meant to them. The ensuing discussion was fascinating. Symbols ranged from a lighted candle to a particular stained glass window to music, chanting God`s name, air and nature, the cross bearing the words ´Father forgive` that was made out of the ruins of Coventry cathedral and others. Each person´s feeling for their chosen symbol was deeply personal and had a powerful spiritual resonance that was particular to them. I was struck by Eboo´s summing-up of this session:

´There are a variety of symbolic languages that have been given to us`.

Suddenly I saw the diversity of religions and their expressions in language, art, music, poetry etc. as an extraordinary gift. In a way, it seemed to me, that our world and its universe provides us with an almost infinite number of keys to the door that opens onto spiritual enlightenment. My focus on Interfaith work changed subtly in this moment. I realised that religions would overcome their differences, not by superficial displays of unity, but through understanding, embracing and enjoying the wealth of ideas, cultures, philosophies and civilisations that they all, in their different ways, offer to all of us.’

One could say that the inter-faith course allowed us to see our own prejudices and attitudes as well as understanding how to approach people of other faiths. It seems that personal meeting in dialogue makes us aware of our deeply rooted presumptions. How do we for example meet intolerance or a less liberal view than ours? With intolerance and fundamentalism? These are real questions we have to face while living in a culturally diverse society. And are we always right?

We all had our own little share of realisations and insights during the course – and we now certainly know a bit more about the ‘how’ of inter-faith. The classes were definitely stimulating and thought provoking, but it was also reassuring to learn about the inter-faith work that goes on all the time. There are people who are deeply committed to dialogue and are doing very good work. It’s just for us to join in.

Written by Merudevi dasi and Joanna Jeczalik

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Interfaith Music Gala

On the 18th of November, in the Jacqueline du Pre Music Building in Oxford, musicians from different faiths gathered for an interfaith music gala. The programme opened, under the musical direction of Neil Farrow, with the Oxfordshir Synagogue choir. This was followed by Matthew Smith of the Unitarian Church singing Bartok, also a Unitarian; his wife, Janet Solomon, playing cello; piano recitals with mantra meditation from Bosnian Buddhist father and son, Dado and Yehan Jehan; gospel vocals from Jill Drewitt, a Christian song writer; harmonium and tabla drums from Jasvir Singh and family, Navleen Kaur and some Afghan Sikh friends; and a well choreographed synthesised recording and visualisation from Earthstar of the Brahma Kumaris. The evening ended with classical Hindu ragas from Guy Beck and Craig Pruess with sitar, tampoora and harmonium.

Some had written their own songs, or composed their own music while others chose more traditional expressions. It was clear that all were offerings of the heart. The first Jewish song took me by surprise. It was an experience of Judaism I had never before encountered in interfaith gatherings and set the mood for what was to follow. I felt engaged in interfaith at a level beyond verbal presentation or dogmatic overviews. This sharing of intimate devotional practice was an awakening for me. It was an engagement not just of the mind but of the heart and although the styles and melodies varied greatly, the underlying mood and intent was re-echoed in each contribution.

I watched the Sikh family, father, son and two young daughters, pray together through song, saw the intensity of concentration on Dr Beck’s face as he chanted his South Indian mantras, and found myself clapping to Jill’s gospel rhythms. Despite all cultural or philosophical differences, this was a unified out-pouring of devotion through music and song. Different styles and different beats but the same yearning, the same reaching out beyond and, deep within, to the Self.

I left up-lifted with tunes still mulling over in my head. Two lines came to me from WB Yeat’s ‘Among School Children’ that captured the essence of the evening for me.

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Written by Anuradha Devi dasi

The IIC thanks performers and helpers and ‘Awards for All’ for their support

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IIC Office News

Our volunteers Bryan and Patrick moved on – our thanks to them for their contributions. Christiania is having a baby so is otherwise engaged for now.

Warm welcome to David Partridge, recently retired to Oxford, who has joined us to help Shige develop our Palestine/Israel programme, Religion, Community and Conflict, in co-operation with Hope Flowers School, Bethlehem. They travelled in the region this December, meeting contacts and arranging visits to co-existence centres in the region, an international conference, and a youth exchange programme. If you think you might like to take part in the conference and visits next September, let us know so we can send you further details when they are ready. Internationally we are also preparing the interfaith lecture and workshops for the IARF Congress in Budapest followed by the 2nd meeting of the international interfaith organisations’ network.

Joanna has helped with a potential interfaith e-learning pilot project as well as looking after the Gala administration (see page 7). JJ has done more filming and video editing (see P6 & insert). The next IIC conference in April will be on Religious Freedom: see registration form enclosed. Do join us if you can. We have also arranged another course from January to March, Introduction to Faiths, and a second seminar in May with the Oxford University’s Department of Continuing Education, this time on Bridges to Peace: Interfaith Initiatives for Conflict Transformation. Also, locally, we are helping to revive the Oxford Round Table of Religions to bring the faith communities here into a deeper dialogue.

One of our patrons, Marcus Braybrooke, with his wife Mary, was kind enough to organise a Garden Party in aid of the IIC this summer. People came from far and wide to enjoy the hospitality, wonderful cakes, and Evensong at Marcus’ church. The donations helped with our fundraising efforts and our thanks to the Braybrookes, and everyone else, who have helped us improve our financial situation. However, if you’d like to follow the example in this picture, that would still be very reassuring! We now also have a safe online donation facility at www.interfaith-center.org.

Jim Kenney, IIC Trustee, and Marcus chaired a panel on ‘The Unique Role of Faith-based Organisations in Fighting Corruption’ at the 10th International Anti-Corruption Conference, held in Prague in October. Marcus, together with Sir Sigmund Sternberg and Dr Zaki Badawi, all co-founders of the Three Faiths Forum, were recently received by King Abdullah of Jordan at Buckingham Palace. They also had an interview with the British Home Secretary, David Blunkett. Both King Abdullah and Mr Blunkett stressed the urgent importance of interfaith dialogue.

Lastly, congratulations to Shige on becoming a Birmingham University part-time MA student from January 2002. He will be studying Interreligious Relations.

IIC Friends Day

Thanks to Anne Holmes, Chapel Officer at Somerville College, we had the perfect venue on Wednesday 27th June for our meeting of IIC Friends which included an interview with Professor John Hick on his personal spiritual beliefs and practice.

In the morning we started by thanking Jill and John Gant for their longstanding, loyal and indispensible volunteering for the IIC. Jill has been our Friends Secretary and John our book-keeper. Four years ago they moved to this area, saw the sign downstairs outside the office, walked upstairs and asked if they could help. Yes please! And help they certainly did! Although they thought they had retired from their volunteering duties, John has since come back to help us again with book-keeping and both remain available for occasional help and can be met at IIC programmes.

We welcomed two of our new volunteers who were present: Shigeyuki Wada and Joanna Jeczalik. Shige is leading our Palestine project (see back page). He can also be found at most of our events quietly helping with all those essential background jobs for which we are most grateful. Joanna is our new Friends Secretary and responsible for all the administration of this Friends Day. She has done a wonderful job and made it a very special day for everyone present. Even more, along with Joanna today came JJ, her husband, who very kindly filmed and edited the interview with John Hick for us. It is the first of a series of planned educational videos on faith and interfaith concerns.

Marcus Braybrooke, a founding trustee of the IIC and now our Patron, then spoke to everyone about the international interfaith scene, the significance of interfaith work for social harmony, the areas still to be addressed and the contribution of the IIC to global interfaith activity. I followed this by mapping out the plans, dreams and needs of the IIC. For the latter I handed over to Celia Storey, Secretary to our Trustees who, with Barney Leith and Matthew Smith, two other trustees, laid IIC’s financial needs on the line! Now or never! Our wonderful Friends present dipped in their pockets again to try to make it now rather than never. A big thank you to them and all IIC Friends who affirm our work with their donations.

A superb lunch followed thanks to Somerville’s catering staff and then on to the main treat of the day: our interview with John Hick. Jael and I found this a special privilege but we did manage to leave time for everyone else to ask John their questions too. Many of us found by the end of the 90 minutes that we had a whole new layer of enquiry we would like to have begun, had time not run out. Questions to John ranged from asking about his sense of personal identity, his understanding of the Real, his belief in reincarnation, the influence of Buddhist meditation on his life and philosophy, the purpose of life, and the meaning of religious diversity and religious symbols. His responses as always were sometimes challenging, often unique, but always full of integrity and clarity. We think the video will be useful for A level and undergraduate theology and religious studies students as well as faith and interfaith groups interested in religious pluralism and the responses to it from one of the most innovative and intellectually stimulating religiously philosophical thinkers of our time.

If you want to know what John really said, buy a copy of the video! You will notice that since June we have also interviewed Farid Esack, Andre Porto, Chandra Muzaffar and Yehuda Stolov. We will be interviewing Diana Eck in May. Thanks to JJ for his continuing help.

SB

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John Hick was asked this question at our Friends Day. People who are active in interfaith believe that it is good to bring people from different faith/religions together to solve existing conflicts by dialogue. Interfaith work can be done by religious people but also by humanists and atheists. We try to mediate, and to quote Sandy: ‘we try to create a safe environment for people who find it difficult to meet’.

The question, can interfaith become like one world religion, as an organised and structured faith, overlooks the fact that religions are based on revelations, with guidelines etc; which is not the case so far with interfaith.

Individuals who manage to make personal contact with the Divine Spirit, with their Buddha Nature, with Allah, with Mother God, the Ultimate Reality etc, become mystics and can stay a member of their religion, or not. Mystics have experienced and ‘know’ that all revelations/inspiration and religions come from the same source. One could say that for mystics there always has existed a one world religion, but that is not organised and will never be; it’s an individual ‘knowing’. I think they will all support interfaith.